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Alaska fisheries concern grows as shutdown continues

The government shutdown has caused few problems so far in Alaska’s fisheries, but concern is growing as it enters a third week.

The shutdown of nine out of 15 federal departments and agencies on Dec. 21 has furloughed about 800,000 workers nationwide, most with no pay, including fishery oversight and research jobs. In many cases, that means there’s no one to issue fishing permits, licenses or other documents and services required before setting out.

“I have not heard of any problems, but that’s not to say that there aren’t any,” said Forrest Bowers, acting director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries division, referring to the cod fishery that opened Jan. 1 and the ongoing Bering Sea crab fishery.

State operations are not directly affected by the shutdown, but fisheries in Alaska waters intertwine and are closely timed with the federal ones. In the co-management case of Bering Sea crab, for example, the feds provide the surveys and science, and the state does the rest.

“The state sets the total allowable catch and we handle the in-season management of the fishery, including vessel registrations, observer coverage and harvest tracking,” Bowers said.

The cod and crab boats had their paperwork in order prior to the shutdown, Bowers said, except for one straggler who needed the services of a furloughed electronic scale inspector and was stuck at the dock.

“They haven’t been able to have that scale inspection done and it’s delaying them. We’re hoping we can get that resolved for them,” Bowers said, adding that other such “behind the scenes” unavailable services in the tightly regulated fisheries could cause problems as more boats come on line this month.

The shutdown also is causing a headache for federally contracted onboard fishery observers who collect stock data and track what’s coming and going over the rails. Regulators at NOAA are not holding debriefings for the observers when they return from a fishing trip, which are required before they can sign on to another.

That’s sidelined five of her employees so far, said Stacey Hansen, program manager at Saltwater, an Anchorage-based company that provides observer services to the fleets.

“I’ve got a group of people that are now stuck. They’re just sitting and waiting until they can get on with their lives,” Hansen told Alaska’s Energy Desk.

Meanwhile, Alaska’s largest fishery, pollock, gets underway on Jan. 20 along with openers for flounders and other whitefish.

“I think there is uncertainty right now about what’s going to happen,” Bowers said. “Fortunately, we have a pretty sophisticated group of folks in the fishing industry in Alaska who are very professional and know how to do their jobs. It helps a lot when there is a good working relationship with the managers; it makes these uncertain times go more smoothly.”

Quick review expected for sole Fish and Game applicant

With only one applicant to consider, the Board of Fisheries and Board of Game’s review of Fish and Game commissioner candidates next week is expected to go quickly.

Douglas Vincent-Lang, the lone applicant, was selected as acting commissioner in early December by incoming Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The governor said in a statement that he believed it was important to have someone managing the department while the Board of Fisheries and Board of Game compiled a list of other potential applicants.

State law requires that a new governor select a commissioner from nominees suggested by the joint boards, and the group will fulfill that statutory obligation on the evening of Jan. 16 at the Anchorage Sheraton. It will be a quick meeting, said boards support executive director Glenn Haight.

“For this particular year, we have one applicant so it’s a fairly simple task for the joint board to go through the review process,” Haight said. “Anyone could’ve applied, it’s up to the individuals. Sometimes in the past there’s been more than 10 names that have come into the department for consideration and sometimes there’s just five or so.”

No testimony will be taken at the joint board meeting, but the public is invited to listen in.

The Fish and Game commissioner oversees 1,700 employees at 47 offices across the state and manages approximately 750 active fisheries, 26 game management units and 32 special areas.

The commissioner appointment must be approved by the Alaska Legislature.

Cruise ships ‘powered by nature’

Liquefied biogas from dead fish and other organic wastes will soon power a fleet of luxury cruise ships as a way to save money and protect the environment.

The 125-year-old cruise operator Hurtigruten, known for its trips to the Arctic, will operate at least six of its 17 ships using a combination of biogas, liquefied natural gas and large battery packs by 2021.

“While competitors are running on cheap, polluting heavy fuel oil, our ships will literally be powered by nature,” spokesman Daniel Skjeldam said in a statement. “Biogas is the greenest fuel in shipping and will be a huge advantage for the environment. We would love other cruise companies to follow,” he added.

Concerns over the atmospheric impacts of high-sulfur fuel favored by the shipping industry led the International Maritime Organization to set a 0.5 percent sulfur limit on marine fuel by 2020.

A 2017 report by the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union in Germany claimed that a midsize cruise ship can use over 100 tons of fuel a day, producing as much particulate as a million cars.

The Norwegian cruise ship company is taking other steps to boost its green credentials: It has ordered three new hybrid-powered cruise liners, has banned single-use plastics from all its ships and plans on becoming carbon neutral.

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